Antagonists and villains

In writing, the antagonist of a story is a person who is directly opposed to the desires, goals, or well-being of the protagonist. They are the person that the hero of the story is fighting against or trying to overcome, or an obstacle in the path to achieving their desired outcome. Very often, people conflate antagonist with villain and often, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, they clearly are. Sauron in Lord of the Rings is the main antagonist and he is definitely a villain – a force of evil trying to conquer the world. Voldemort is a fascist murderer. But someone can be an antagonist without being a villain – and this can sometimes lead to interesting conflict and more nuanced stories.

I’m going to give an example for a TV show recently aired on Netflix that had surprising nuance for the kids fantasy show that it is: The Dragon Prince. Only a handful of episodes have aired so far, so it’s not certain what direction the writers will take the story or how the conflicts between characters will play out, but it seems to have a lot of potential for interesting dynamics between the characters.

The heroes of the show, the protagonists, are clear. The story is about two human princes, Callum and Ezran, and the elf assassin Rayla trying to stop a war by returning a stolen dragon egg to its mother. The antagonist of the show are more complicated because there are a number of characters who directly oppose these characters without necessarily being villains. I am going to give some spoilers here, so if you’re interested in watching the show, be warned, but I’ll try to avoid spoiling anything major.

Runaan is the leader of the assassins who come to kill the human king and Prince Ezran. He wants Ezran dead along with their father/step-father. He won’t hesitate to kill humans he comes across. At first glance, his character seems like a clear villain, except his actions are also about protecting the lives of his team, and getting justice for a crime committed by humans. Within the narrative, he is quickly put in a position where we as the audience are meant to feel pity for him. While he is narratively opposed to the heroes, we can have sympathy for him as well.

Soren is even less like a villain. When he is introduced, he is training Callum in sword-fighting, doing so in a teasing and joking manner that shows affection between the characters. He is a friend to the princes, and is a generally likeable character, laughing and joking, messing with his sister. He has his flaws and shows occasional meanness in his jokes, but overall his character is firmly on the side of the good guys. Except he is given the instructions to kill the princes. This order is framed as being for the good of the kingdom, to ensure that someone with experience is on the throne when war comes. He is told that this is for the greater good, but the choice still clearly troubles him. This is a character who wants to do what is right being told to kill the heroes of the show but still not quite being a villain.

Claudia is in a similar position. She is given the task of hunting the princes down and in an early episode tries to kill Rayla, but she does so to protect Callum and Ezran. She uses magic and sometimes has the appearance that would more normally be associated with a dark magic doer in a fantasy show, but she uses her magic to defend the princes from a perceived threat. Seeing the scenes where she’s joking with her brother, it’s hard to picture her as a villain, but she’s clearly an antagonist.

General Amaya is even more clearly one of the good guys. She tries to kill Rayla but she does so because she thinks Rayla is a bloodthirsty elf who had kidnapped the princes. She wants to protect the princes and the kingdom. She wants to stop someone claiming the throne through treachery. She stands in the way of the heroes’ goals, but because she is trying to help them without having all the information.

It will be interesting to see where the show goes with all these different character dynamics, but I’m looking forward to seeing it. As writers we can look at an example like this and think about how to put more nuance into the relationships between the characters in our stories. Just because someone is an antagonist doesn’t mean that they have to be an evil villain. There’s a lot of potential for interesting drama when they’re far from it.

The Problem of the Shiny New Idea

I’ve never been very good at focus when it comes to my writing. I can write a lot in a short period of time, but it’s not always for the thing that I feel I should be working on. At any given time, I might be actively working on a couple of books, another couple of fanfics, a short story, and have the ideas for half a dozen other stories bubbling away in my head like something on the backburner of the stove, ready to boil over.

The advantage of this is that I’ve never really struggled with writer’s block. If one of my stories is at an awkward place, I can write something else until I have a bit of inspiration about how to fix whatever is flagging. Sometimes this happens in the middle of a writing session. I’ll write a few hundred words on one project and then find myself stuck because I need to research something, or I can’t think of the right word, or I’m just not sure what should happen next. When that happens, I can flip over to another writing project and usually blast out a few hundred words on that instead.

This approach can also be useful with editing, because I can finish the first draft of a story and then go and focus on my other projects for a bit, and when I come back to that first story I can look at it with fresh eyes and spot the problems that need to be fixed.

The disadvantage of this approach is that the part of me going, “I really should finish the second draft of the third Shadows of Tomorrow book,” gets drowned out by the other part of me that goes, “There’s a shiny new idea over there.”

I have some time booked off work soon that I’m using as writer’s retreat. I really, really should spend that time finishing the third Shadows of Tomorrow book. Anyone want to make bets about how quickly I get distracted by a new and shiny idea?

4thewords

Are you the sort of person who gets motivated because of games that offer simple rewards for achieving small goals? For example, are you encouraged to get up off the sofa and go for a short walk because you don’t want to lose your Pokemon Go streak? If you find these sort of games work for you, and you’re a writer struggling to hit your word count, I would like to recommend http://4thewords.com.

4thewords word count screenshot This is a web-based game that lets you fight monsters by writing.

When you sign up, you are introduced to a fantasy world location and assigned quests to complete. These quests usually involve collecting enough of a certain item, but there are some that involve fighting a specific boss monster or maintaining a streak of number of days in a row you’ve written.

When you choose to fight a monster, the game starts a timer. The timer could be for as short as 30 minutes, or you could get several hours for the tougher monsters. You also get a word count to achieve. You can create files and write in them using a basic word processor page on the site which saves your work every few seconds and keeps an updated view of your word count. You can also see the status of your battle – how much time you have left and how many words you have left to write. As you write more words, the progress bar moves up until you reach the target. Then you get your “reward”. The game offers you reward items that you can use to complete quests or give you bonuses to your battles. 4thewords battle screenshot

As well as competing with the fictional monsters, you can compete with other users on the site. The site has leaderboards that let you see how other users are doing in terms of their total word counts, the number of battles they’ve won, and the length of their writing streak. You can see how you stack up against other players and try to climb to the top of these leaderboards.

All your work is saved as files on the site and you can group those into sections and projects – so you could have a project be a story and each file be a separate chapter. You don’t have to do all your writing in one file for a battle; you can jump between files as often as you like as you strive to reach your word count. There’s no rule saying that what you write has to be fiction. As long as you type it in their webpage, it could be anything at all. For example, I’m actually writing this blog post in 4thewords right now.

From a legal/copyright perspective, all your words are your own. The creators of the site don’t take ownership of any of it, and you can always delete files later if you want to take them off the site.

While you’re working on your writing, the files are private, but you have the option to “publish” the files, which makes them visible on the site to other users. You can go into this section and find things that other people have written available for you to read and rate.

The site is still being developed. Since I joined 10 days ago, they’ve launched a forum so you can have discussions with the other writers using the game. I’m sure there will be more features added as the game grows.

4thewords core crystals screenshotThere are just a couple of things to note. One is that there is no easy export option. I wish there was a simple way to click a button and download my writing in a Word file, but there’s not. Still, it’s not the end of the world and there’s always copy/paste. The other thing to note is that this is a paid for game. You get the first 30 days for free but after that you have to pay for “core crystals”. It costs $4 to get enough core crystals to pay for a month’s membership, but these are in game objects and you can actually get some of them for completing quests. Combine this with the fact that you can buy bundles of core crystals and get a better price for buying in bulk, it could end up being significantly cheaper than $4 if you play regularly.

The free trial doesn’t require a commitment (no one’s going to ask for your credit card number or anything), so you can try it out and see if it motivates you to write more. If it doesn’t, you’ve not lost anything. If it does, it’s up to you to decide whether you think it’s worth $4 to you.

Edit: when you sign up, if you enter the referral code DFXRI67115 you will get 20 bonus core crystals, which is nearly half the month’s cost, so you won’t have to pay the full amount for your second month.